Adam Sandler in Uncut Gems.
Adam Sandler in Uncut Gems.
Image: Supplied

The return to the daily grind of work, traffic and domestic responsibility inevitably comes with the attendant feelings of urban disconnection and arbitrary connection that engulfs us as we all go about the business of living our own lives in dense centres filled with millions of people doing the same thing.

These three films explore in their very different ways the intertwining lives of characters in different places around the world to convey sometimes a sense of urban alienation and at others, a sense of how in spite of our belief in our individual distinctiveness we’re often more alike than we think.

The art house essential: The Terrorizers (Mubi.com)

Edward Yang was a key figure in the Taiwanese New Wave that emerged in the 1980s. He died in 2007, leaving behind a small but singular body of work, much of which remained criminally unseen outside of his native Taiwan for most of his life but which, has over recent years been made more widely available.

Most well-known for his Cannes Best Director winning 2000 classic Yi Yi: A One and a Two, Yang developed his own unique storytelling style, which is already on full display in The Terrorizers, his third film from 1986.

The film, described as a “metaphysical mystery about the lives of three couples in Taipei that continually intersect over the span of several weeks,” is a quiet, contemplative examination of what it felt like to be living in the country during the last years of its rule by the Kuomintang military, just before its emergence on the world stage as a democratic global economic player.

The narrative centres on the connections between its pairing of characters in varying degrees of actual partnership: a young slacker photographer and the delinquent young woman he becomes obsessed with after shooting pictures of her during a police drug den raid; an obsequious hospital administrator, looking to gain promotion even if it means he has to throw his best friend under the bus, is too busy with his own self-interested pursuit of middle-class order and stability to notice that his wife, traumatised by a recent stillbirth, is struggling to write a novel and looking for comfort in the arms of an old fling.

As the strange, claustrophobic unease of the city slowly envelops all of the characters, Yang masterfully keeps the various strands of the story firmly focused while also refusing to offer any satisfactory resolution to the puzzle he’s so carefully created.

The end result is a film that leaves you emotionally breathless at the aching attempts by its characters to impose some sort of futile order on their lives only to find that lived experience is always heartbreakingly unknowable and never as neatly as tied up as fiction would like you to believe it can be.  

The stone-cold classic: Ten (Mubi.com)

Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami was never a filmmaker to shy away from experimentation. This 2002 film is perhaps one of his most experimental while also being, for those who are patient enough to stick with its 94 minutes, one of his most subtly rewarding examinations of the social peculiarities and relatable humanity of the citizens of his much-beloved and often horribly misunderstood homeland.

It’s all shot on two cameras mounted on the dashboard of a car, from inside, in which all the action takes place. That action consists of 10 conversations that the car’s driver, an Iranian female taxi driver, has with a series of passengers over the course of a day in the country’s capital, Tehran, including her sister and her disappointingly misogynist young son, who lashes out at her for divorcing his father.

As the day progresses and the conversations mount up, Kiarostami subtly builds a portrait through what is said, of a society in flux, where some old-fashioned values are falling away and others are very much still frustratingly firmly in place. It is a film very much about the place of women in Iranian society but it’s also a film about shared humanity and the way it makes itself felt in ordinary daily interactions.

The diamond in the rough: Uncut Gems (Netflix)

The Safdie brothers have a particular talent for telling grimy, high-anxiety underworld stories set in their beloved New York that hark back to the dark, gritty, morally muddy films of the US ‘70s New Wave.

This noirish, nasty and high-stress tale of a gambling addict gem dealer trying to maximise his payout by juggling a series of complicated deals involving a valuable stone, is one of their finest.

That’s due in no small part to the excellent performance from Adam Sandler, who perfectly conveys the mix of overconfidence and sheer exasperation of its central character — one of those depressingly addicted gamblers who, in spite of all his experience to the contrary, still believes that he has a shot at beating the house.

Frenetically paced and infused with stomach churning angst from the get-go, it’s an often uncomfortable-to-watch but hard to turn away from New York underbelly thriller.

The Safdies display a love for their nebbish loser antihero and a keen sense of the particular nooks and crannies of the setting that’s carefully controlled in every regard, from its music choices to the edgy, shadowy frames of master cinematographer Darius Khondji and the excellent performances of the supporting cast.

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